Some may think that people without celiac disease (gluten allergy) who still eat a gluten-free diet are just doing it to be trendy. But people who are sensitive to gluten, and experience symptoms from eating gluten such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headache, or fatigue, know there’s nothing trendy about it. Now, research presented as an abstract at the 23rd United European Gastroenterology Week and reported on by NPR, may have found one reason why certain people may be sensitive to gluten. Researchers have found that gluten-sensitive people have high levels of an inflammatory protein in their gut called zonulin—levels similar to those found in people with celiac disease. Zonulin regulates the permeability of the intestine and is normally released when triggered by harmful bacteria (such as salmonella). When triggered, it protects our body by setting off bodily functions (such as diarrhea) that flush out the bad bugs. However, in a small percentage of people, like in those with celiac disease, gluten also appears to trigger the release of zonulin.
To test the relationship between zonulin and gluten-sensitivity, researchers measured the zonulin levels of 27 people, divided into four groups: people with celiac disease, people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) marked by diarrhea, people with self-diagnosed gluten sensitivity, and healthy people. They discovered that:
Both the group with celiac disease and the group with gluten-sensitivity had high levels of zonulin in their blood (0.033 and 0.030 ng/mg, respectively), compared with the IBS or healthy group (0.012 and 0.007 ng/mg, respectively).
The study’s findings have increased the general understanding of how zonulin may contribute to certain bowel conditions. However, this research is still in its infancy and more research is needed to determine if these results will play a role in the development of treatments for gluten-sensitivity or other related conditions.